Aisha Conner- Gaten: Thank You For Applying: Using POCs to Diversify A Search Pool
By Aisha Conner- Gaten, MSLIS
Aisha Conner-Gaten, she/her/hers, is an anti-racist librarian and activist working in Los Angeles. Her work focuses on emerging technologies, issues of equity access in the library, and the role of librarians as social justice accomplices. You can find her on Twitter @Aisha_CG.
I know a lot of brilliant people in LIS. So many of us have the charisma, nerve, commitment, and knowledge to be outstanding information workers. More specifically, I know some amazing people of color (POC). These folks understand what it is like being one of the few in a profession. They know what it is like to try to change that isolating experience for others, for the better. All of these folks deserve equal opportunities to excel.
We know that we have dedicated professionals who deserve jobs out there, let’s talk about search committees, diversity, and hiring in general. Over the last year, I’ve witnessed many of my brilliant POC colleagues take the time to apply to several academic positions, complete the pre-tests, submit writing samples, and travel to go on day-long interviews only to get a polite letter of dismissal shortly thereafter. I’m not so delusional as to assume that every one of these searches were conducted unfairly. But statistically, given years of academic experience and everyone’s constant excitement for the sexiness that is diversity and inclusion; something would have happened for one of them.
So, what is going on with diversity and job searches and hiring in LIS?
Several of my experiences and those of my POC peers, specifically in academia, are anecdotal but have value considering their honesty, immediacy, and frequency. My tweet on this subject was inspired by a professor friend who knew a POC student graduating from a Library and Information Science program with a master's degree. This student was invited to apply to a public position in the library where they currently worked. While I am not aware of their previous relationship with the institution, as a former student and staff person, attempting to transition from library school to a full-time position; the act of being acknowledged and explicitly asked to interview is a great honor.
This process gives some confidence in your ability as a professional to get hired. However, this student was not hired and received no additional feedback as to why they were denied. This institution went on to cut the students’ part-time hours until they were no longer employed with them. This is a fairly common occurrence in academia as well. You are never really sure why you weren't selected. You may find out through networking who was and perhaps that their qualifications met some unknown characteristic or trait that you did not. This all leads to the issues that we see with hiring by numbers or to appease policies for search committees.
Feedback on the hiring process, interviews, and additional materials would assist many candidates in their future journey. The labor, time, and cost of interviewing with institutions who may not seriously consider a candidate is never addressed except a tersely worded email at the end of months of waiting. For POC, these unknown reasons as to why you were not chosen can easily change into something more sinister: imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon whereby one believes they aren’t actually qualified for the work they are doing and will be discovered as a fraud. Enduring multiple hiring processes only to fail can enhance feeling for new librarians.
In addition to this, POC that I have spoken with also have the distinct feeling that their presence was intentional---but not for the right reasons. Many institutions require diversity in their candidate pools or the search will be stalled. Those involved in a months-long process of reviewing applicants and interviewing, a stalled search is both painful and ineffective. Given this possibility, academics are never surprised to hear that some candidates were interviewed simply to diversify the pool and continue the search with no intent to hire the diverse candidate. But how does anyone prove this?
Let’s just say that having this POC student in the search pool allows for a diverse group of candidates. Maybe it even helps us hire more POC long term. What’s the problem with that?
Let’s look at another profession and their consideration for this: The NFL and the Rooney Rule. Like many well-intentioned policies about diversity and inclusion, the Rooney Rule requires the presence of ethnic minorities into otherwise very white or white-passing candidate pools in head coaching and leadership searches. However, this rule does not address biases that exist in the selection process or the ways in which minorities must overcome financial or personal barriers to interview in the first place. For the NFL, this may not be much of an issue. But in less lucrative fields like librarianship, taking 2-3 days off to interview, prepare materials, find someone to keep your children, or fly out to another location can be a make-or-break moment. I would love to know about the hiring that happens according to this rule. How many minority candidates resign from searches for these exact reasons? As I mentioned in my tweets, many POC in my experience have had to do additional labor to find out if the organization is even equipped to hire and retain them; that is, does the organization even care to support a POC person if they get past these barriers and get the job? Often this answer is no and they end up floating from one institution, branch, and, in dire cases, professions trying to find a place for them. For those economically unable to explore their professional options, they suffer in silence hoping to gain enough experience or money to make moves on their own.
The Rooney Rule also only attempts to address racial disparities in hiring. I am not sure how many institutions and organizations extend this rule to gender, disability, and even age diversity as well. This is a conversation that has come up in librarianship a lot (see April Hathcock’s “White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS for more on this). Institutions embrace “diverse” initiatives but never really speak to the overall oppression and inequities that happen in hiring and in the work overall. They use the word like “culture” and “fit” to explain why POC candidates were not acceptable, which are coded words for the white norms they are attempting to protect. To them, increasing the number of brown faces in the room, usually by single digits, is affirming a commitment to “diversity and inclusion.”
Okay, so POCs get sucked into fake searches for work in toxic environments. What can we do?
Like all worthwhile solutions, there is no easy answer to fix all systems. It’s almost like asking for the solving racism. It is on the organizations to honestly evaluate their hiring practices and commit to actively recruiting and supporting POC professionals who interview. That doesn’t mean posting to the “Black” website or listserv either. That means going to meet folks where they are, providing real information about the organization, and even connecting them to current employees who can provide a view of the everyday.
Having that Equal Opportunity Statement is nice (and legally required), but what about explicitly stating your intent to bring POC folks into space and SUPPORTING THEM ONCE THEY GET HIRED? Things as small as paying for travel and meals can make a difference in someone leaving a search or not. Folks involved in the hiring need to be trained and told explicitly the value of considering candidates of color which at this point is redundant, but you would be surprised to themselves as colleagues and to the institution as a whole. There also needs to be accountability for any violations of confidentiality on behalf of the candidate. I’ve heard of many searches that imploded because folks on committee commented or shared information to other interviewing candidates about their competitors.
It is so imperative for the organization to take on this effort. In addition to nervousness and other issues, power dynamics are also at play with hiring. Many candidates do not feel they are in a position to ask about the organization's diversity or initiatives but, especially for POC folks, having that information can make all the difference in how successful they can be in that place. Like salary and opportunities for advancement, how much or little an organization prioritizes their POC colleagues impact candidates in the long run, so this is something they need to know early in the process. As it stands, the POC professionals I know form their own groups to give the “lowdown” on organizations in terms of their commitment to supporting POC folks hired and that has really given us more agency in our decision-making.
And yes, in the quick searches that institutions seek, all of this extra labor seems like an impossible dream. However, if you want to have the impactful, inclusive, innovative library and legacy that you dream of as a leader, this labor is a necessary part of that process. As a POC information worker, trust me, we are worth it.